Hello from the Fog and Flame,
It has been a morning of mishaps, but I guess that is to be expected as I am attentively, and somewhat in intensely, trying to make sure I have covered all my bases before the day is out. However, I need to relax and is often the case, my way to do that is to turn to my inner-self and write about it. However, before you read my blog this time, I am going to ask that you do what I am doing. If you have a pair of ear-buds or some other private listening device, please put them on or in and turn on your favorite Christmas or Hanukah music. As I write this, it is both Christmas Eve day and the beginning of Hanukah. The heavens and the calendars have united this year. Perhaps it is the harbinger of good things to come and unity can somehow find its way into other elements of our country and our world.
What are your first memories of Christmas? What made the season magical as is often the word used to describe this season, which is actually the season of Advent until tomorrow for the Christian? What made your Hanukah Celebrations memorable and how does Hanukah with differing dates change the anticipation for those who celebrate this Festival of Lights? My earliest memories of Christmas do not really begin until I was in elementary school. While I lived at the place by fondest memories of Christmas occurred, in spite of the fact I lived in that house until I was almost five, I do not remember Christmases there as a toddler. I do remember living there, but I do not the holidays. I do remember all the amazing things that were created in the bakery as a small child and I know that the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas were tremendously busy. The pies and pastries, the amazing breads and various things that I somehow never tired of eating were setting out in every direction. What I remember about the Christmas holiday was spending a week at my Grandmother’s house beginning with Christmas, and usually until the end of the school vacation. Mornings of poached eggs, amazing toasted breads, and a fresh grapefruit were, and are, still my comfort food. Christmas Eve was always spent at church with multiple services and singing in choirs and we would open family presents between services. My mother was the most phenomenal Christmas cookie and candy maker and she would spend pretty much every waking moment from Thanksgiving to Christmas making more candy, cookies, peanut brittle, divinity, as she called it, Norwegian Christmas cookies, and anything you might imagine. Seriously, no one could touch her when it came to all of these Christmas treats. Christmas Eve meant getting to bed late, but not too late, because Santa still needed to come and late nights jeopardized the visit. Christmas morning meant making oatmeal for breakfast and then packing the car to drive to Grandma’s house for a day of amazing food, a Christmas program of carols and music (me playing my trumpet, by older brother playing his trombone, and my sister, Kris, leading the singing of carols. This was our yearly gift to our relatives. Sometimes I must admit I did not want to do it, but at the end I was always glad I did. The Christmas dinner guests were my family of five, my Great-aunt Helen and her husband, Melvin, my Great-aunt Martha, who could still speak Norwegian, my Aunt Martha, my Uncle Claire, and sometimes, a few cousins. What I remember about the Christmas was my grandmother pulled out all the stops and was so happy that we came back to her house every year. She had an acreage and hills and tobogganing was a staple as well as games of hearts after dishes were done and somehow coming back to eat more, usually turkey sandwiches and more pie before everyone would leave, but that really began the holiday for my sister and me as we stayed at Grandma’s house for at least another week. I loved that house. It was not a rich or large house, but it was filled with love. From the old fashioned kitchen to the warm and toasty den, it was the place I felt safe; the place I knew I was loved. I was fortunate to have that through my high school years. I am not sure Christmas has ever been the same. That is not to say that there have not been additional memories that mean a lot to me.
When I was first married, Susan and I were pretty poor, but somehow I began to collect Dickens Houses for Christmas. Somehow they were all lost in a divorce. To this day, I am not sure what happened to them. I have always loved sitting in front of the Christmas tree in the dark with only the lights of the tree and music playing softly in the background. To this day, that has not changed. What has changed is that the holidays are special, but when I get to see the smiles and the excitement on face of others. A second important realization of Christmas for me was when I was in East Germany and Germany before Christmas in 1985. The German Christmas Markets and the fact that they celebrated Advent for Advent really impressed me, but merely as an issue of beauty, but as an issue of piety and appropriateness. Another significant Christmas memory for me was my second Christmas as a pastor in Lehighton, Pennsylvania, not far from where I live now. We did a special service for families called “The Animals’ Christmas” and everyone brought a stuffed animal to put in the chancel area. I did a monologue to my teddy bear and used the first Mannheim Steamroller’s Christmas music. It turned out well and when the lights came back up, parishioners actually had tears in their eyes. It was one of those times I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit at Christmas in ways I seldom have. I remember some Christmases in the Southern Black Hills of South Dakota with Susan’s family. Her parents were always terrifically kind to me and they are very good people. Christmas when I was a pastor was very different because of the amount of work that goes into Christmas services. Christmas Day when I was in the parish was a time to finally relax and decompress. If I was to consider the most important thing I have received from the Christmas holiday is finally a time when people seem a bit kinder, a bit more gentle and a time where perhaps they step back and realize what matters. While the giving and receiving of gifts is always amazing, it is the giving and receiving of care that really makes this time magnificent to me.
Two years ago today I was sitting vigil at the bedside of one of the most amazing people I have ever been blessed to know. She was actually somewhat Scrooge-ish when it came to Christmas and I think there a number of reasons for that, and not all of them are clear to me, but at this point I had sat by her bedside for about 5 days when it was expected she might live for 3. Instead on this day she laid there and pointed into the corner, speaking in Polish. I asked her George was there for her and she said, yes. I asked her if she was really to go, and she shook her head, rather empathically, I might add, no. During those days, I learned how important another family was, the Menomonie family that had supported me while I cared for her over the years. Then there was her COH family, the amazing workers, cooks, nurses, and administrators, many who had watched her battle with the terrible disease of dementia as this brilliant and forceful little tornado slowly lost her battle to know who and where she was. The one thing she never lost was her forcefulness, her amazing eyes and infectious smile. The vigil I held for that 8 days before I had to leave to fly to Poland taught me as much about myself as it did about others. To allow someone to leave when you desperately want to hang on to them is a difficult thing. I remember thinking she was waiting yet again to do things on her terms. During those days I merely worked on the computer in her room and played John Rutter’s Pandora station. To this day, it is my favorite Christmas station. For me, Christmas is the music; the profound way in which it is able to reach into the core of my being and remind me of the emotions and pull images from Christmases past unto the internal video screen that runs through my mind provides a sense of comfort that is unequalled by any other experience. . . . much like two years ago (and it is now late on the evening of the 27th if you are in Pennsylvania, but early morning on the 28th if you are with me in Budapest), I had to leave to travel. That traveling was to Poland and I would be walking around Krakow (as I will be in a day or two once again) and praying in St. Mary’s that George might convince Lydia that leaving this world for the next was both reasonable and preferable. In the past week I read an article about the increased mortality for ourselves during the Christmas holidays. Why is it we find leaving this world for the next during this sacred time of year? It is for that very reason, its sacredness? Is it because we know that the memories of this time are so significant for many of us? As I write this, it is about 5:40 a.m. and I awoke to the news that Carrie Fisher has left this world at 60. It is interesting how there is this sense of immortality among the famous, and I do not think I realized that she was a contemporary (at least chronologically) for me.
I know that remaining in touch with some of the beautiful people from COH is one of the ways I think we all continue to grieve and celebrate Lydia’s memory and the profound influence she had. I still do not believe she would hold herself in such esteem. She was always stunned that people would still (after 20 years) come up to her and introduced themselves to Professor Rutkowski. “Michael,” she would say, “I do not know why they still recognize me.” I still wonder if she did or not, but she was a force and I told her, always smiling, that I had no problem determining why she was recognizable. Aging is a cruel and uncompromising reality, but she fought it and beat it for most of her 90 years. It was not until those last three years or so (and I will blame it on the dementia) not on her aging. I remember how elegant she was, even after the first year she was in COH. She worried and was, in many ways, both cognizant and petrified of what was to come. She knew and yet she fought it gallantly. Even in her last days she wanted control of what was happening. She was only willing to go when she decided. I believe that is her most lasting legacy to me. She was a do-er and she decided what she was willing or not willing to do. This is not to say she did not have her fears (and some of them were abject or acute), like storms. I think she also worried more about others because of her size and her accent, which I found to be one of her most endearing qualities.
As I sit and compose at my computer again this morning, I am wondering what it was like for Dr. Nielsen when he had all the students with him year in and out. What students learn as they are on this trip is also somewhat fathomless, or should be. I remember the sense of walking through a history book. As Americans our understanding of “old” in terms of buildings, history, or time is so nascent. While those who know me, and my Marine Corps background, should be aware, I have a deep-seated patriotism for the what America does and stands for; however, I am also rather recondite when it comes to how long we have been a country and how dependent we are on the history of those before us. That is where I come back to the idea of memory and our own heritage, be it nationally or personally. Be it in the grand scheme or when it comes simply to my distinctive or particularized experiences of this time of year, I know that I am the cumulative product of the heritage and experiences which came before me. As I often say, none of us gets where we are without the help of another. As I consider once again the heritage of the little tornado or the national identity of her town when later today and tomorrow I will be in Wien, her adopted home, I hope I might view and experience it with a sense of her elegance. I hope I might feel her walking beside me with her little Austrian accent and that purposeful walk. Lydia, even now, two years later, I am much of what I am and I am able to do much of what I do because you loved me.
Ich kann mich noch an den ersten Tag erinnern, als ich dich fragte, ob du Deutsch sprechen würdest und du sagtest kurz: ‘Natürlich bin ich ein Österreicher.’ Wenig wusste ich, dass meine erste Reise nach Polen und jetzt Wien ein Teil von wem ich werden würde. Wenig wusste ich, dass ich in der Lage war, Ihre Stimme immer noch zu hören. Heute, während ich durch deine Stadt gehe, hoffe ich, dass ich dich in meiner Nähe spüren und mich anleiten werde. Ich sagte dir vor zwei Jahren warst du jetzt mein Schutzengel, und es ist wahr. Du bist. Ich hoffe, dass das Sie lächelt und immer noch bereit ist, mich zu informieren, dass ich Ihr elendes Geschöpf bin. Ich liebe dich immer noch.
For a translation of the last part, I have written: Today as I walk through your town I hope I will feel you near me and directing me. I told you two years ago you were now my guardian angel, and it is true. You are. I hope this finds you smiling and still willing to let me know that I am your miserable creature. I love you still.
To the rest of you, thank you for reading.
Dr. Martin (aka: the wanderer)